The Santa Barbara County Medical Society (SBCMS) held its annual meeting at the Four Seasons Biltmore on December 7. SBCMS presented Dr. Gilbert Andersen of Lompoc with the coveted Physician of the Year award. Keynote speaker, C. Alan Brown, M.D., discussed his recent tour in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps as a medical officer from October 2009 to June 2010.
“Given that so many of our board members knew Dr. Brown and that he had recently returned from active duty, it was unanimous that he should be invited to address the group,” said Lisa Reich, executive director of SBCMS.
A practicing cardiologist in Santa Barbara, Brown spent five months training in Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms to prepare for the cultural and military challenges that he would face in Afghanistan’s Helmand province — reportedly the world’s largest opium-producing region.
In his speech, “My Experience with Village Medical Outreach in Afghanistan,” he talked about how OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) set out on counterinsurgency missions, offered security to local villages, and encouraged the legitimization of governance — and how dealing with the Taliban was not the highest priority.
The Helmand province has a high infant mortality rate (155 deaths for every 1,000 live births) and a 44-year life expectancy rate, two of many issues compounded by malnutrition and exposure to malaria.
As Brown and fellow soldiers braved the desert terrain and unpredictable sandstorms, one of their main goals was to help local villagers.
Another goal was to interdict Taliban drug smugglers — at one point even destroying nearly $1 billion worth in semi-produced opium — said Brown. OEF aimed to engage local villagers and local leadership and divert them from growing poppies, the plant used to produce opium.
But Brown attested that it was counterproductive to destroy poppy fields immediately, since villagers would have no other means to provide for their families. The goal, then, was to help farmers transition from poppies to wheat or grains. These efforts resulted in a dramatic reduction of poppy production over the course of six months.
Veterinary camps were also set up to raise goats and sheep. Villagers were trained to do this themselves, as a goat and sheep can help sustain a family.
Upon first arrival in Afghanistan, there were no local Afghan medical services, said Brown. Village Medical Outreach Programs were established, which are small aid stations that offer help to (mostly) children who were malnourished or suffering from scalding injuries. Brown recounted a story of young boys who drove one of their own in a wheelbarrow, traveling 12 kilometers every other day for three weeks, just to receive treatment for his burns.
The keynote address closed with acknowledgments of fellow soldiers who did not have the opportunity to make it back home, as well as the “lionesses” — women Marines who volunteered to leave relatively safer positions to interact with Afghani women, something the male Marines were not able to do.
“I never saw any women Afghanis from the ages 15-45 until the lionesses came,” said Brown.
Although Brown’s term overseas is finished, the work needed to help rebuild the villages is still not finished — Operation Enduring Freedom is still underway.
“Only time will tell how the country will improve,” he said.
Brown was awarded with the CMA Resolution for his membership with SBCMS since 1982, being a Navy commander, traveling overseas at the age of 59 with the Marines as a battalion surgeon, and numerous instances of community service.